Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

North of the Border

May 05, 2011

Anthony Heald observes Stephanie Beatriz and Frankie J. Alvarez in Measure for Measure. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

One of my favorite places to visit during the Summer is Ashland, Oregon. Just minutes north of the California border in the beautiful Rogue Valley, the city is home to Southern Oregon University and one of the nation’s biggest summer theater festivals. Now in its 76th year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will again present 11 plays in three theaters over a nine-month period. It’s no small task, and the incredibly high quality of the productions there in the midst of such beautiful surroundings makes it an ideal summer getaway. The festival has been under the direction of Bill Rauch since 2007 and the 2011 season currently under way, bears the unmistakeable stamp of his boundary pushing vision and interest in new work that audiences in Southern California will be familiar with from his days at South Coast Repertory.

Mark Antony (Danforth Comins) grieves for his dead Julius Caesar (Vilma Silva). Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

To talk about any season in Ashland is to start with Shakespeare. Rauch’s Shakespeare strives to connect with contemporary audiences with a variety of updates and modern twists. He directed many works for the festival now as both a guest and the festival's Artistic Director including an excellent Two Gentlemen of Verona and last year's popular high-gloss Hamlet. His production of Measure for Measure is one of this year’s highlights moving the action into an urban barrio in the 1970s. Rauch has also upped the ante on the festival’s long-standing commitment to diversity in casting and productions by opening up further opportunities for actors to take on big roles in ways you might not expect. The New Theater will host Amanda Dehnert’s take on Julius Caesar starring Vilma Silva in the title role. There are interesting tangential takes on other works as well with Carlyle Brown’s, The African Company Presents Richard III which will arrive in the Bowmer Theater on July 20 looking at a meta-drama about rival productions of the Shakespeare text produced in a racially divided 1820s New York City. Rounding out the Shakespeare docket will be two productions on the open-air Elizabethan Stage, Henry IV, Part II and Love’s Labor’s Lost both of which will kick off in early June.

The Cast of August: Osage County. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

Bill Rauch’s other directing job this season will also be on the Elizabethan Stage. Under his guidance, the festival has ventured into more non-Shakespeare territory on the outdoor stage and this year brings a hopefully all-swashing, all-buckling Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance which I know is the show I’m most anticipating this year. Of course there is plenty of new and recent work at the festival this year. The festival continues its “American Revolutions” series of new plays with Tony Taccone’s Ghost Light which will open in The New Theater on June 28th. This partially autobiographical story will revisit the life of George Moscone, the former San Francisco mayor who was notoriously assassinated in the 1970s alongside Harvey Milk, and his relationship with his son Jonathan, who has developed and will be directing the new play. The festival will also mount productions of two recent successful plays, Julia Cho’s The Language Archive which had its premiere at South Coast Repertory and Tracy Letts’ multi-award winning masterpiece, August: Osage County.

Rounding out the season will be a Molière comedy, The Imaginary Invalid and a stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird both of which will appear on the Bowmer stage. And if all of this isn’t enough, the festival will also take a detour into a more interactive production entitled WillFul, a “site-specific theater event” that will involve interactions with various OSF actors and an audience that is on the move. This new adventure will unfold beginning August 7. I’ll be reporting from the festival over Memorial Day and just before Labor Day to bookend the summer and hope you get the chance to get away to one of America’s great festivals this year as well.


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